Social Life & Culture

IV. Social Life & Culture

The results of Roman rule in Western Europe are not summed up in the “pax Romana” or in the economic impetus which it evoked. In the eys of many its greatest achievement was the diffusion of Roman culture.

This achievement was no more the outcome of a deliberate policy of romanisation than the material development of Western Europe was due to the Roman Government. So far as the Romans had a sense of mission, it was in their capacity as administrators and keepers of the world’s peace. They did not proclaim that there was but one culture and that they were its prophets; indeed, when in the course of their conquests they met people like the Greeks, who were more advanced in civilisation than themselves, they freely acknowledged the fact and took lessons from a beaten enemy. But in Western Europe the task of romanisation was not particularly difficult. The peoples of the West were for the most part not far removed in race from the Italians: they spoke languages which were not fundamentally different, and they practiced religions which could easily be reconciled with that of their conquerors. At the same time they were at least as far behind the Romans in general culture as the Romans had previously fallen short of the Greeks. By the beginning of the Christian era Roman civilisation stood at its height. As the result of their schooling at the hands of the Greeks the Romans had acquired social refinement and artistic tastes; they had polished up the Latin tongue into a euphonious and flexible instrument of thought; and they had created a literature which is still one of the world’s classics. Lastly, the very forbearance of the Romans in not forcing their speech, their customs, and their cults upon their dependents made these all the more ready to adopt them of their own free will. Thus the first two centuries A.D. witnessed a process by which the peoples of Western Europe became assimilated to the Romans and to each other.

Of the instruments by which this assimilation was carried out the most effective was the Roman army. This, as we have seen, attracted year in year out some thousands of recruits who stayed with the colours for some twenty years or so, and during that period felt the influence of a powerful esprit-de-corps. Small wonder that they emerged from the army as true and good representatives of Roman civilisation. These romanised ex-soldiers in turn passed on to others the gifts which they had received. As a rule they were pensioned off into “colonies” – i.e., corporate settlements which at the earliest possible stage were raised to the status of self-governing towns. These colonies received an essentially Roman type of constitution; they used Latin as their official language; and in every way they made themselves into replicas of Italian townships. In this atmosphere the native wives whom the colonists usually married, and any other indigenous persons who were attracted to the settlement, could hardly fail to succumb to Roman influence. Thus, on the frontiers and behind them, the soldiers were incidentally spreading Roman culture. Of the civilian agents of romanisation the men of business were no doubt the most pervasive. These indeed might not be Italian by birth – as a matter of fact they often were Greeks or Syrians or, in Gaul, natives – yet they could hardly help spreading the use of Latin, which in the western provinces inevitably became the language of commerce and industry. But scarcely less ubiquitous were the schoolmasters, who were privileged under the laws of Augustus to acquire Roman franchise on easy terms, and to enjoy exemption from various taxes wherever they took up residence. Italian, Greek, or native, theschoolmasters would certainly make th eteaching of Latin one of their chief aims.

In reviewing the results of this process of romanisation, we may begin by considering its effects on the material life of Western Europe. The most striking evidence of Roman influence in this direction was the rapid growth of towns. Previous to the Roman conquest the inhabitants of Western Europe had for the most part been dispersed over the countryside. Small settlements of craftsmen and traders might be found in the more civilised districts (especially in Gaul); but these as yet would be neither numerous nor wealthy, and the governing nobilities, as in the Middle Ages, remained essentially rustic. Under Roman rule the increase of public security drew the natives from the heights into the plains (occasionally with the help of a little forcible persuasion on the part of a Roman governor bent on routing out robber strongholds); the lure of gain or of a brighter life attracted them into some urban centre. thus the old native settlements and the Roman colonies grew into real towns; and the “canabae” or bazaars which usually formed round the Roman frontier camps here and there (as at Mainz) attained the status of cities. The urbanisation of Spain can be measured by some surviving statistics. At the beginning of the Christian era Hispania Tarraconensis contained 179 urban communities and 114 rural cantons, Lusitania had 45 urban and 6 rural districts. By A.D. 150 Tarraconensis is divided into 275 units, of which 248 are urban, and the entire area of Lusitania is apportioned between 57 towns. Similarly the whole Italian peninsula was divided into some 450 city territories. In Britain, it is true, only 12 towns of any size were formed, and in Gaul the South alone was strongly urbanised. Besides, Roman cities seldom exceeded an acreage of half a square mile or a population of 50,000. Even so, town life played a greater part in Western Europe under Roman rule than at any subsequent time down to the nineteenth century.

In their situation and lay-out the Roman towns of Western Europe reflect the general sense of security which prevailed under the early emperors. As a rule they were established in the plains, hard by the natural centres of traffic. The most typical location is on a hill-slope or on a low flat bluff by the side of a navigable river: Lyon in Gal and Merida in Spain are good examples from the Continent; London, York, and Chester in Britain. Another feature of these towns is that most of them were not fortified. The older foundations in Italy and Southern Gaul, which dated back to the pre-Christian era, were originally contained in a ring-wall, and the newer settlements in the military zone of course had to be protected. But in general the towns of more recent date were left open: in A.D. 61 the British rebels under Boadicea walked into London unchecked. It is also probable that many of the older cities followed the example of Rome, which burst its bounds and spread far beyond the enceinte of the Republican period. Under these conditions it became possible to dispose the Roman towns according to a set plan; in point of fact, their streets were invariably aligned in a regular pattern, and most commonly in the form of a chess-board. The width of the roads seldom exceeded twenty-five feet, and often was less than fifteen feet, so that wheeled traffic inside the towns had to be severely restricted. But the paving was as solid as that of the highroads in the country, and footwalks and gutters were provided.

The architects of Roman towns were at special pains to provide them with an abundance of good water. To this end they would construct aqueducts of anything up to sixty miles in length. The remains of some of these – e.g., the Aqua Claudia at Rome, the “Puente” of Segovia, in Spain, and the magnificent Pont-du-Gard, near Nimes, in Southern France, are among the most impressive remains of the Roman Empire. It is reckoned that Rome was more lavishly furnished with water than most great towns of the present day; but in every city of the Roman Empire an ample supply might be taken for granted.

Within a Roman town the private dwelling-houses usually did not present an imposing appearance as seen from the street. At Ostia, the harbour town of Rome, blocks of flats have been excavated which would do honour to a modern European city. On the other hand, at Pompeii the well-to-do inhabitants lived in low-built houses which presented to the roadside little more than bare stretches of lime-washed wall. This latter type, which still survives in the more quiet Mediterranean towns, was probably the prevailing one in ancient times. In Rome, where room was scarce, the poorer people were herded together in many-storied tenements; elsewhere they lived in garrets above shops or in huts with one or two rooms. In any case, their apartments were crazy structures of timber or mud-brick, and sorry to look at from within or without. The houses of the richer inhabitants were commonly built in stone or in concrete faced with burnt brick; they were well lighted and aired from inner courtyards, and where room permitted they had small rear-gardens; their rooms, which were numerous enough to give adequate privacy, were decorated with mosaic floors and frescoes on the inner walls, and tastefully if somewhat scantily furnished.

But the pride of ancient towns lay in their public rather than in their private buildings. Neighbouring cities competed with each other in making a brave display of architecture; not only the town councils but the richer citizens spent freely, or even overspent themselves for this purpose. At the centre of each town would be a “forum” or open square, flanked with a city hall, municipal offices, and colonnades; the same square, or others provided specially for the purpose, would serve as shopping centres. The temples, which usually approximated to the Greek type, were smaller and less sumptuous than might have been expected. On the other hand, the open-air theatres, amphitheatres (circular arenas for beast-hunts and gladiatorial games), and circuses (with long out-and-home tracks) were designed on a far larger scale than the places of entertainment on modern towns of equal size. At Rome the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum (the principle amphitheatre) could accommodate 200,000 and 50,000 spectators respectively. The many surviving remains of similar structures in other towns – e.g., at Verona, at Arls and Nimes, at Merida and Italica (near Seville) – prove that these were proportionately on an equal if not on a larger scale. Lastly, even the villages and the battalion camps of Western Europe were furnished with bathing establishments. In the towns these usually contained suites for Turkish bathing as well as swimming tanks. Pompeii, with a population of perhaps 30,000, had at least three public baths; in Rome the number of baths is recorded to have exceeded 800.

On the countryside the chief evidence of material culture lay in the roman “villas.” These were of two kinds. In Italy, all along the western seaboard and on the foothills of the Apennines, there were pleasure villas, mostly the property of wealthy residents of Rome, who regularly spent their summer holidays outside the city, and sometimes passed a considerable part of the year in peregrinating from one such country seat to another. The largest of such villas contained multiple suites of rooms, and extensive gardens in the trim French style. But the more usual type of villas was a large farmhouse belonging to a squire or a moderately rich bourgeois. Many specimens of this kind have been discovered in Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Rhineland, and Britain. Their living apartments formed but one small block of the farm buildings, but they were well constructed in stone or half-timber, and contained much solid comfort. Mosaic floors and central heating are a common feature of them; near Pompeii one such farmhouse was equipped with a hot-water tank.

The uniformity of culture in Western Europe at hte beginning of the Christian era is particularly evident in the sphere of art. The “classical” style, which the Romans had borrowed from the Greeks and in turn transmitted to the western provinces, all but obliterated the native arts, which indeed gave little promise of independent growth, except among the Celtic peoples. By the time of the Roman conquests classical art was well matured and of a high average order of merit, though no longer capable of a great creative effort. Its most capable exponents under the Roman emperors were the architects, who, as we have seen, enjoyed exceptional opportunities at this period. Their work has the usual classical characteristics of simple plans, clear and firm outlines, and good proportions, but shows a tendency to excessive profusion of decorative detail. The best sculptors of the first two centuries A.D. did all their work in Italy. At Rome the remains of their decorative reliefs and their portrait statuary in the round – e.g., the Ara Pacis and the busts of the early emperors – are quite worthy of comparison with good Greek sculpture. In the western provinces the best surviving specimens are the grave-reliefs of the well-to-do bourgeoisie in France, Belgium, and the Rhineland, and the “Corbridge Lion” (now in the Corbridge Museum), with its somewhat unclassical vigour.

Of the minor arts, pottery, metallurgy, glass-work, and jewellery remained at a high level of technique. The “Augustus cameo” at Vienna, and the “Portland Vase”  of coloured glass (now at the British Museum) are real triumphs in work of their kind; and the finely undercut glass, in which the museum at Cologne is especially rich, invites comparison with the best modern work. Almost any museum of Roman antiquities contains specimens of bronze casting and of “terra sigillata” – i.e., Gallic red-glazed pottery with embossed reliefs, which are mere factory products, but of high merit in regard to design.

But the most enduring result of romanisatiion was the diffusion of Latin. As the language of the army, of the civil administration, and of commerce, Latin had in any case an advantage over the native tongues; in addition, it was taught in the schools to the exclusion of the indigenous languages. This virtual monopoly of Latin was due to the fact that the schools themselves were a product of Roman rule. Previous to the Roman conquest systematic teaching in the western countries was limited to the priestly order of the Druids in Gaul, who taught scraps of Greek (derived from Masslia) to a few select pupils. Under the Roman dominion schools were opened even in remote mining villages. Boys and girls alike were admitted, and if we may argue to the provinces from Italy, where emperors and private benefactors vied with each other in establishing scholarship funds, even quite poor children would be able to attend. for the more well-to-do, higher schools were also set up in some of the towns, the teachers’ salaries being not infrequently provided, or at any rate supplemented, out of the municipal exchequer. At Marseille, Bordeaux, and Trier, as well as at Rome, there were academies whose professors enjoyed handsome remuneration and a high social status. While in the elementary schools the tuition hardly went beyond the reading and writing of Latin, in the higher schools and academies literary appreciation and composition were also taught, and Greek as well as Latin was studied.

Under these conditions the native languages were driven underground. In Gaul, it is true, the Celtic tongue persisted even in the towns far into the second century, and went on being used in writing; but the failure of the indigenous tongues to revive after the end of Roman rule (except in a few odd corners) shows that previously they must have been in a moribund condition. Thus Latin was in a way towards becoming the universal language. In the towns even the labourers could write in it, and the richer classes freely adopted it as their mother-tongue. At Lyon it was even possible by A.d. 100 to obtain copies of recently published works by Italian authors. moreover, the Latin of the western provinces was practically indistinguishable from that of Italy. the vulgarisms of a popular scribble in Gaul are much the same as those of a graffito at Pompeii; and the academic Latin of the provincial don is just as tediously correct as that of his Latin colleague.

Of the Latin literature of the early Christian era it is impossible to speak here at adequate length. By the beginning of that era it was well past its prime. In the sphere of poetry henceforth its only notable performances are some first-rate satire, many clever vers d’occasion, and one high-spirited epic. The historical writings of Tacitus stand in the front rank of ancient classics; but most of the other prose literature bears the mark of that addiction to euphuism and rhetoric which was the bane of the schools of that period. Even so, in the hands of the writers of the first and second centuries A.D. Latin remained a powerful and flexible instrument of expression. But the most remarkable fact about the literature of this epoch is that its chief authors were mostly natives of the western provinces. Gaul became the chosen of Latin oratory; Spain produced no less that four out of the six or seven leading names in post-Augustan literature, the epic poet Lucan, the satirist Seneca, the epigrammatist Martial, and the literary critic Quintilian.

Of the social life of Western Europe under the early Roman emperors we know less than might appear at first sight. Many writers, ancient and modern, have dilated on the extravagance and dissoluteness of high society in Rome. But Rome in this respect was not in the least typical of the Roman Empire as a whole: there is no warrant for transferring the peculiar vices of the idle rich of a capital to the bourgeoisie and the poorer classes of the provinces. There is evidence from literature, and from the numerous surviving tombstones of Italy and the western provinces, that marriages were reasonably prolific, and that the relations of husband and wife, of parents and children, of masters and domestics, were normally healthy. In one respect, indeed, Roman influence was beneficial in Western Europe, in that it assisted to break down the now obsolete patriarchal organization of the family. According to Roman custom women were still given and taken in marriage without being consulted, and only in the second century A.D. did they become legal persons. but they could move quite freely inside the house and out; they retained their dowries and kept control of their property, and their education was often as careful as that of their brothers. It is difficult to strike the balance between the idealising records of family life under the early Roman emperors and the caricatures; in any case, there is no reason to suppose that it was fundamentally unsound.

The history of religion in Western Europe during the first two centuries A.D. was comparatively uneventful. Christianity had not yet progressed in these regions. In Rome the Christians were sufficiently numerous by A.D. 64 to attract the notice of the persecuting Emperor Nero, and a persecution at Lyon in A.D. 177 proves that a considerable congregation had formed by then in the Gaulsh capital. but as yet Christianity was mainly confined to the East. Despite a large Jewish colony at Rome, little was known as yet of Jewish religion in the West. In general the old-established pagan cults lived on by the force of inertia and in mutual toleration. But a double movement of displacement or absorption was in process. On the one hand, Italian deities made their entry into the western provinces. The Roman armies brought with them Jupiter and Mars, merchants introduced Mercury, and school-teachers the whole classical pantheon. The Roman administration usually observed a disinterested attitude in religious matters, but occasionally forced the pace of conversion. It encouraged the new religion of emperor-worship, and at its prompting temples were set up to Augustus in the provincial capitals of Gaul and Spain, and to Claudius in Colchester. By a somewhat unusual act of repression, Claudius prohibited Druidical rites in Gaul, and subsequent governors of Britain made an apparently successful attempt to stamp it out in their province. Thus the native deities were suppressed or absorbed in the corresponding Italian gods.

But it is doubtful whether these transformations involved much more than a change of name. A more important process was the introduction of certain Oriental cults, especially those of the Persian Mithra and the Egyptian Isis. The worship of Isis, already established in Italy by the time of Augustus, was subsequently carried by Eastern traders wherever they travelled in Western Europe, and has been traced in London. The cult of Mithra was disseminated by Oriental soldiers serving in Western quarters; dedications in his honour have been found along Hadrian’s wall. The peculiarity of these lay in the fact that they brought a message of hope, promised a blessed life after death, and imposed a change of heart on the convert. In some degree, therefore, they paved the way for Christianity.